Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Conviction Movie Review: The Innocent Goes to Prison and the Righteous Gets a Law Degrees

It is the unfortunate consequence of an imperfect Justice system that the guilty will sometimes go free and occasionally the innocent will be punished. The philosophy behind proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” is that the latter will occur much less frequently. Sadly, it occurs more often than a free society should be comfortable with as the ever-increasing number of exonerations through DNA testing makes clear.

In 1982, Kenneth Waters of Ayer, Massachusetts, was tried and convicted for the brutal murder of a neighbor. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. His sister, Betty-Anne, always believed in his innocence and so she got her GED, a BA and then finally a law degree so she could personally take on the cause of getting her older brother out of prison. In the end, DNA evidence overturned his conviction and set him free.

The story is so unbelievable that if it weren’t based on fact, the plot would be so preposterous as to be rendered unfit for mass consumption. It turns out Kenneth was allegedly (and I’m not sure how much leeway the screenplay by Pamela Gray takes with the truth) the victim of a small conspiracy carried out by a police department (personified by officer Nancy Taylor and played in yet another great performance by Melissa Leo) that withheld certain key evidence even from the prosecutor Martha Coakley (there’s a name that’s been in the national news recently) and coerced two ex-girlfriends (one played Juliette Lewis) of Kenny’s into lying on the witness stand. Waters’ estate did eventually win a lawsuit against the city of Ayer.

Sam Rockwell, that firebrand of an actor who doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as he deserves, plays Waters and Hilary Swank (who maybe gets a little too much) his sister Betty-Anne. The first half hour of the film, unnecessarily confusing though it may be with its muddled and incomprehensible shifts in time, is mostly devoted to establishing the close sibling bond between Kenny and Betty-Anne. As children we see them breaking into neighborhood houses to steal sweets and dream of living a better life than what they have with an absent mother who gave birth to ten children from seven different fathers. These scenes are interspersed with scenes that take place in several different years including the both the year of the murder and Kenny’s arrest two years after the fact, depicting moments that establish Kenny as a town drunk and troublemaker.

Directed by Tony Goldwyn, the film is tiresomely conventional, a little to manipulative and far too enamored with itself as a film of great importance. Watching the trailer will tell you all you need to know about what the marketing department thought they had on their hands. But Goldwyn and Gray don’t seem to trust themselves enough as film makers to allow the material to speak for itself. Can we really believe that the police interrupted the funeral of Kenny’s grandfather to arrest him? Or is this blatant manipulation to place the audience squarely on the side against the police: “Look how insensitive they are!” Or when Betty-Anne and best friend Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) are trying to track down the original evidence and are told at every corner that it’s been destroyed and they should give up. It feels a little too staged to elicit the “You go, girl! Don’t give up” attitude popularized by Erin Brockovich.

And what are we to make of a throwaway accusation about Officer Taylor having been kicked off the force after having made false accusations against a fellow officer? There is never any follow-up on this inane detail that is thrown in for no reason other than to poison the audience’s opinion of her, in much the same way that a criminal lawyer will attempt to discredit a witness by planting information in the minds of the jury members.

As an example of love and devotion, Betty-Anne’s story is incredible. Her goal from the beginning was to keep her brother, who tried to kill himself in prison, alive as long as possible. She gets him to agree not to hurt himself as long as she’s moving toward her law degree. Her dedication to her studies and investigation take its toll on her personal life. She loses her husband and eventually her two teenage sons opt to move out of her house and in with their father.

Once Betty-Anne makes some serious headway in unearthing evidence, she earns the aid of Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), who started The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating the innocent through DNA evidence. Although she doesn’t practice law, she occasionally does volunteer work for them to this day.

The film has a strange omission and it’s a bit of a sour note. Kenneth Waters died six months after being released from prison after sustaining a head injury in a fall. This is not mentioned in the closing title cards. I suppose that’s exactly the kind of thing you don’t want to end with when your goal is to make a movie for the “stand up and cheer” crowd.

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